Saturday, August 16, 2008


you know how if you think about the same things over and over, after awhile, they all sound the same? you find yourself coming back to the same reasoning or emotion or anxiety or aspiration again and again? i had a moment like that this shabbos. 

we had stopped by my bubbe's house in the late afternoon just to talk with her for awhile, since she doesn't get out as much as she used to. my mother and my bubbe entangled themselves in one of those technical conversations only mothers and bubbes can have about what this family member should go for in college and how many tuna fish sandwiches you should pack for this amount of people to get to this kind of roadside attraction and whether it was worth it to put shabbos clothes in a suitcase or ship them ad infinitum. i listened for a little while and eventually i found myself examining the pictures on my bubbe's walls. 

these are not in general things i pay close attention to, since most of them have been hanging from their hooks longer than i've been alive, and i've already had much opportunity to study them in close detail during long sederim, thanksgiving meals, etc. i don't know why i decided to look at them again today. but something tucked into a corner of my grandparents' wedding picture caught my eye, and i leaned forward to pluck it from the frame. 

it was a black and white picture, not much bigger than a postage stamp. there were three people in the picture: a middle-aged couple and a teenage boy. the teenager, posed between the adults, grinned at something off-camera; he could have been an American high school poster boy with his crew cut and dimples. His mother, on his right, draped one arm over his left shoulder and smiled down at him, her dark hair in a perfect bob, her elegant shoulders white against her sundress. And the boy's father had one elbow hooked playfully over his other shoulder and his mouth wide in mid-laugh. There was a strong curl dangling over his forehead, a faint mustache, and a glint of benign amusement in his crinkled eyes. The three of them looked to me like the handsomest family I had ever seen, and the photo was casual, as though they'd taken it in a drugstore booth. I turned it over, looking for a date. 

The back of the photo just said "1958." 

My grandfather had come into the room while I was studying it, and I realized that he was the boy in the picture. Those were his parents, my great-grandma and great-grandfather, the one I call and visit on Sundays. I looked at the picture again. 1958. fifty years ago. the picture itself was older than my great-grandfather had been when it was taken. 

it has always amazed me how bodies change so much throughout our lives. we are never quite the same people, from day to day, from year to year. until now, i have been in the beginning stages of life, where you are always growing into something or growing out of it, becoming what you will be when you're an adult. but it has only gradually dawned on me that adults shift with the years too. in the 1958 picture, my great-grandfather is about 44, which is neither young nor old. but i was still shocked by how different he looks: his face so much firmer, his skin lighter, unwrinkled, his hair dark, crisp and curly (he's been going for these civil war sideburns lately), his arms strong and toned. only his eyes, with their mischievous twinkle, are exactly the same. if not for them, he could have been a different person entirely. the same is true of my great-grandmother, whose queenly profile caught me by surprise, or even my grandfather, who is older himself now and worlds apart from the abercrombie & fitch youth in that photograph. but the minds, the personalities are the same. my great-grandfather today has many of the same opinions and thoughts that he had 50 years ago. only the outside has changed. 

i find that lately i have been thinking about time a lot, maybe even obsessing over it. until this point, the soothing cycle of school years and summer vacations was really all i'd ever known. this week i dug up an old story i'd written when i was twelve, a wannabe novel, and reading through it, i was fascinated by how much that twelve-year-old view of the world is preserved in its pages. without thinking, i have believed for years that i would never grow up for good (read: irreversibly). i seem to have invested in this 'do-over button' scheme, where if one life decision doesn't work out you can always try something else, and there is all the time in the world to spend with all the right people doing all the important things. didn't take your younger sister to the drugstore on her roller skates to buy her a chocolate? next week! didn't call your grandmother on her birthday? next year! didn't find a way to make your job meaningful? next job! it never occurred to me that you could run out of nexts or that the time you spend waiting for them isn't put back on the meter. my great-grandmother is gone now. i will never write the story she always tried to dictate to me about how her father's horse used to bang on the door when it was hungry or how she drove her parents around when she was fourteen.  

and, if everything goes according to plan, i will graduate college this year. throughout my life, almost unconsciously, i find myself comparing where i am and who i am to what my parents, grandparents, friends were when they were my age and what they became later. am i on track? do i understand what they understood? what will i be like when i'm the age they are in that picture? what was it like to be me when that picture was taken? am i still the person i used to be, even though my face has changed its shape, my hair has gotten curlier, my resume's gotten longer, my driver's license is expiring...or am i becoming somebody else, in a picture that hasn't been taken yet? 
it's so easy to lose yourself in the minutae--and believe that i am not minimizing their importance--of day-to-day life. in how many tuna sandwiches you need to pack, how you're going to ship your clothes, what kind of cell phone service to get. these are the small decisions our lives are made of--but you lose sight of the timeline. we are all at different points on our lines, but they begin and end. and before you know it, one bright autumn afternoon of fun with your son is fifty years behind you, in a universe by itself. 

i am still at a point where i can remember what the "Start" sign looks like. the set of memories i usually reference are all about growing pains: professors i had trouble with, school bullies, birthday cakes, sibling rivalries, household chores, family trips. those are the experiences i've been drawing on to define myself for most of my life. but in these next few years there's a paradigm shift coming. i won't really be any kind of child anymore: not a kid or a teenager or a student. will i be what i wanted to be when i grew up? heaven only knows. but for me, that sheltered and nurturing segment of life will be more or less finished. there will be no do-overs. you can't go back to high school. 

was high school that much fun? does anyone really want to do ads for their eighth grade yearbook again? discuss amongst yourselves. i don't have any answers. if anyone invented a time machine i'd be the first to get a mortgage for one, or even just a pause button; wouldn't it be great to be able to freeze life, do all the thinking and stewing you need for a given situation, and jump back in without missing any of the action? or better still, wouldn't it be great if you could be in more than one place at once? you could watch your brother throw together a chulent and push your friend's kid on a swing at the same time.

looking at that stamp-sized picture, taken decades before any of these people i love realized they would have grandchildren or great-grandchildren, only one thing is clear to me right now. 
what i want most is for someone, sixty or seventy years down the road, to pick up a picture of me and think as i did: "that was my grandmother when she was young. she learned so much from the world around her during her lifetime and treated everyone with love and respect. i'm proud to be her grandchild."